An al fresco reopening is a tail of two fortunes

Catering Today talks with Kingdom Thenga, owner of three Cheshire pubs and restaurants, and Jimmy Garcia, chef and London pop-up owner, to discuss the prospect of divided fortunes for those within the hospitality sector upon the upcoming 12 April outdoor reopening

The time is nearing for Boris Johnson’s roadmap to recovery to finally facilitate the reopening of the hospitality industry, with outdoor venues once again allowed to return to trading on 12 April. The easing of restrictions is without doubt greatly anticipated by all involved, but does the four-staged strategy perpetuate an unlevel playing field? Moreover, with just five weeks separating the opening of outdoor and indoor hospitality operations, how can businesses make investment into al fresco facilities a worthwhile decision?

The government claims to have provided a “lifeline to many businesses” through its pavement license extension, in turn supposedly levelling the ground for those without traditional outdoor set ups. However, some business owners have found the process more troublesome than it may seem.

For Kingdom Thenga, the owner of Cheshire’s The Suburbs, The Yard, and Old Dukes, “any sort of opening is a good start” for the industry’s recovery. Yet, he claims that the uneven effects of the staged reopening are as clear as day. “If you have a big outside area, which sadly we don’t and most don’t, then you are on a jump start and in a better position to start the rebuild,” Thenga says. 

Due to their lack of outdoor facilities, Thenga’s three Cheshire pubs and restaurants are in the “frustrating” position of remaining closed until indoor hospitality reopens on 17 May – in stage three of Johnson’s recovery plan. Through no fault of its own, Thenga says that the business “can’t benefit from the first wave of everyone wanting to be out”.

Compare this to the outlook of Jimmy Garcia, chef and pop-up restaurant owner, and it could not be more different. “We’re quite fortunate that all of our pop-up restaurant concepts are all outdoors, particularly in the Summer,” Garcia says. “So on the 12 April we’re reopening our first pop-up, The BBQ Club on Southbank, and we’ve found tickets booking incredibly fast. I think it’s due to being one of the only al fresco restaurant dining experiences available in London so we can’t wait.”

While there may only be five weeks of trading before indoor hospitality also reopens, the timeframe in itself brings its own decisions. Thenga, who hasn’t yet invested in his Chester sites’ outdoor areas, is just one of many weighing up the possible financial benefits of reopening early against the sunk costs associated with preparing the facilities and drawing in customers.

However, Catherine Johnstone, founder of the international hospitality consultancy Vigour and Vice, claims that a number of small steps can be taken to maximise those limited areas. She says: “Venues with smaller outdoor areas can capitalise on the limited space they have by ensuring their booking systems are set up and running as effectively as possible.

“Make sure you have a thorough booking confirmation process, including calling the guest on the day of the reservation and just prior to the booking. Make sure your reservations system is being updated in real time to take account of any no-shows or cancellations, and use an effective waiting list to fill any tables that become available last minute.”

Johnstone even argues that investing in “a few nice blankets and umbrellas” while encouraging customers to “embrace the great British weather” can make a vital difference. Yet, while these small changes can perhaps keep a venue ticking over until 17 May, business owners, like Garcia, who are able to open their entire operations on 12 April can truly make the most of a five-week head start if they are properly prepared.

“Venues that benefit from an outdoor area need to be ready for demand,” Johnstone says. “Planning is key – make sure your outdoor area is set up for social distancing and prepare a sound financial plan that reflects both historical trading patterns and the changes in the sales capacity and booking demand.”

Johnstone adds that maintaining an efficient “operational flow” is essential once opened, as it can curtail the possibility of becoming overwhelmed. She also says that “using sales targets and staff incentives” to ensure motivation are vital in capitalising on the five-week advantage.

For an industry that has gone through vast periods of closures and difficulties over the last year, the 12 April outdoor reopening cannot be denied as a positive for the sector. However, does the unfair tilt towards al fresco establishments need to be further addressed so as to avoid permanently damaging those indoor venues? 

In a letter to council leaders on 5 March, Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities, and local government, pressed that he was “determined” not to allow “red tape to get in the way of a great British summer”. In turn, speedy pavement licenses that were first introduced last summer have been extended for a further 12 months until 2022. 

Jenrick claimed that the measures would “make it easier and cheaper” for pubs, restaurants, and cafes to operate with “outdoor seating, tables, and street stalls to serve food and drinks”. The extension encompasses an inclusion of the capped £100 application fee, and a 10-working day consultation and determination period.

As the owner of numerous London pop-ups, Garcia has “worked with private landlords for a long time”. As a result, the group was well positioned to continue along its business model without applying for additional space. However, Garcia does hold some reservations over the long-term impacts of easing licensing restrictions. “It’s always a good thing,” he says. “But what might end up happening if it eases too much is anyone and everyone trying to do the same things, which could be hard to police on quality.”

As for Thenga, the road to recovery does not look so smooth. He had hoped to use the car park at one of his venues, The Suburbs, but disputes over the space’s eligibility have left little time for planning. Thenga says that the government “needs to make it [licensing eligibility] clear to the councils” to make applications “quicker and easier”. He adds: “The frustrating part is that the council has no clue and does not answer quickly enough to enable us to start planning.”

However, a spokesperson for the Cheshire West and Chester Borough council claims that the public nature of the car park is the sticking point. They say that “al fresco licences are intended for pavements and pedestrian areas”, therefore placing The Suburbs’ council-owned space out of the question. 

The spokesperson adds: “We are unable to accept the application due to the demand for parking at this location and the requirement for the site to accommodate additional limited parking due to social distancing measures being applied to the highway.”

Regardless, Thenga says that the staged reopening is not enough for businesses within the industry who do not own outdoor spaces themselves. “We as an industry need more help,” he says. “We also need the councils to be more proactive in our industry’s recovery”. He adds that for those who are unable to open in April, there is a need for “a lot more support” than is currently provided through government grants. 

It is clear that the 12 April can be seen as a slight false start for much of the hospitality industry. While the government has aimed to include all venues within stage two of reopening, it is just not possible for a raft of pubs and restaurants with no access to outdoor facilities. Many small steps can be taken to maximise any opportunities for these businesses, but for those in a similar situation to Thenga this is evidently no substitute for increased government support until 17 May.

As such, Johnson’s four-staged roadmap to recovery has provided a tale of two fortunes. For business owners who run outdoor-specialised venues, such as Garcia, the five weeks from 12 April could be a goldmine waiting to be tapped into. Provided al fresco establishments are prepared to offer efficient and smooth operations, a large influx of demand for a reduced number restaurants, bars, and cafes could set these businesses along a fast tracked path to recovery.

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